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Why lowering The drink-drive limit isn't the answer

Why lowering The drink-drive limit isn't the answer

Why lowering The drink-drive limit isn't the answer

In the last few weeks, you'd be forgiven for assuming that England disagrees with Scotland on pretty much everything; as evidenced by the sea of yellow found in the north of the British post-election map put there by a party diametrically opposed to another party representing the big blue swathes in the south.

But an announcement by Victoria Martin, a chief Inspector of the Police Federation of England and Wales, suggests that the nations could soon be following the example of Scotland in reducing the drink-driving limit from 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood to 50mg - effectively a limit of just below a pint of beer or a large glass of wine for men and half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine for women.

The Scots reduced their limit, to move in line with the majority of European countries, in December last year and they have seen a reduction in failed breathalyser tests in the time since the change.

However, the move has been met with consternation in England and Wales. The biggest criticism surrounding the law's impact on the humble pub. Since the change in limit, Scotland has seen sales on licenced premises such as pubs (an already declining market), collapse by 30% in a three month period. The belief being that lowering the alcohol limit has led to a fundamental change in behaviour: people are both not bothering to head to the pub for a swift couple and they are also abstaining from heavy nights out, knowing that the residual blood alcohol level in the morning would now be too high.

Naturally, this has also put jobs in the sector at risk, and called into question the enduring viability of the pub - a truly cherished UK institution if ever there was one.

All that's really being done at the moment is reducing the limit to something slightly less lethal.

Others have argued that by reducing the limit from a small amount to an even smaller amount, you're merely criminalising people who already are being pretty conscientious; surely we should be going after the big boys who have a skinful and then weave all over the roads putting people at serious risk? In addition critics have also been quick to point out that the number of drink driving offences in Scotland has actually been in a steady decline anyway since 2006. Indeed stats from 2012 showed the year to have the lowest amount of drink driving related incidents since 1969. It's easy to argue that the new limit change has had no effect on offences whatsoever, that it was unnecessary - the number of failed tests would have fallen anyway.

Then there's also the view that reducing the amount isn't the issue. Better alcohol education is. Simply threatening people with lower limits will have little impact: people need to be educated about the consequences of their actions and taught further about the effects of alcohol units and body size in order for themselves to make a more sensible decision about their own behaviour. In addition, alternatives to drink-driving need to be increased: more public transport in the evening, particularly in rural areas; or initiatives such as subsidised taxi fares would certainly go a long way to helping.

However, while these alternatives should also be brought in, reducing the level from 80mg to 50mg is not the correct thing to do. It should, in fact, be even lower.

No economic argument from the pubs' side can seriously justify people needlessly losing their lives. A 2010 NICE review discovered "strong evidence" that any alcohol whatsoever impairs a person's ability to drive, even those with a blood alcohol concentration between 20mg and 50mg per 100ml of blood are three times more likely to die in a vehicle crash. All that's really being done at the moment is reducing the limit to something slightly less lethal.

Sweden, along with several other countries, have adopted the 20mg limit in order to remove any ambiguity from the situation - and they have seen the number of drink-driving accidents fall - intriguingly, even the number of incidents of drivers way over the limit decreased after the change. So, no matter how painful the move is for pubs, it is up to them to find alternative revenue streams, or come up with their own, or government-assisted, schemes to provide alternative transport arrangements for customers, rather than argue that it is better that people drink and drive, even to a small level.

Zero tolerance really is the key, although a 0mg level is not desirable, due to the possibility of erroneous factors such as the presence of alcohol in mouthwash, some foods (anyone for coq au vin?) and medication. Road safety group Brake say that 20mg is the lowest one can go without accidentally pulling in innocent parties.

In addition, the blanket proposed lowering does nothing to alter the other finding from the Police Federation - that anti-drink-driving messages had not been reaching women as effectively as men. Improved education, and the elimination of any doubt with the lowest possible level would surely help address this, rather than a slightly-lower-but-still-something level of 50mg.

​There are plenty more driving issues to address in order to make our roads safer - more retesting, and a closer watch on younger drivers perhaps - but a bold, decisive move on drink-driving, rather than the one due to be proposed, will surely be a good place to start.

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